Foster care agencies are calling for volunteers to step up across Australia to help children at risk, as rates of family violence surge during the coronavirus pandemic.
Samar is a vibrant, energetic foster mother who has cared for multiple children in crisis over the past six years.
“I've just taken them under my wing, I've always had that in me that I want to look after people. I want to do something with my life,” the 31-year-old told SBS News.
Samar and her husband Mouhamed, 35, recently adopted a young boy, who’s lived with the family in Sydney’s west since he was a toddler.
“Restoration with family members wasn't available, unfortunately, so we went through the whole adoption process. It did take about two-and-a-half years”.
“It was amazing, I don't even have words to describe it. It the best feeling ever. Just knowing that he's going to be with us forever. We can raise him up to be a good young man."
For the past year, the family have also cared for a young girl, and hope to adopt her as well.
They have no biological children of their own, but would welcome two more foster children into their care.
“Every week or so there's a call for a new child coming in,” Samar explained.
A new study predicts that demand for foster care is likely to rise during the coronavirus pandemic, as households struggle with the economic impacts of bans and restrictions.
“The impact of the virus is being felt in extreme ways by vulnerable children and families,” report author Dr Melissa Kaltner found.
Domestic and family violence services in Australia are experiencing surges in demand, Dr Kaltner added.
Delays in court hearings, and increased abuse in homes due to mental health and substance abuse during isolation are other risk factors for children.
“Partial lockdown means that children are experiencing longer periods of abuse and neglect, which then will result in higher trauma needs when they come through to the care system,” Dr Kaltner said.
Globally, the report cited evidence that domestic violence incidents have increased by up to three times times the pre-coronavirus rates.
However, increasing child abuse may remain hidden.
“School teachers, health workers and community members cannot easily monitor child wellbeing, which is likely to temporarily reduce reporting of child abuse,” Dr Kaltner found.
“People aren't reaching out for help to the same level that they were because of lockdown conditions and the fact that women and children currently living with perpetrators are unable to get out.”
Coronavirus may also lead to a shortage of foster carers, with some less willing to open their doors due to health concerns.
With carers already in critically short supply, child protection agencies may struggle to locate alternative options, the report found.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 11 times more likely to be in the care of the state, so their foster and kinship care placements could be severely impacted,” Dr Kaltner said.
“Almost 90 per cent of carers in Australia are aged over 40, and many fear an increased risk of a more severe case of COVID-19 if they contract the disease,” Dr Kaltner said.
Limited family contact
Turkish migrant Suzan is a 69-year-old foster carer who is caring for two children, a teenager and a pre-schooler.
However, due to social distancing restrictions they have had limited face-to-face contact with their biological family members.
“During coronavirus, I didn't take them to the shopping centre for a [family] meeting. Nobody comes [here] for nearly six weeks, I didn't see anyone," Suzan said.
Victoria has suspended face-to-face visits between children in out-of-home care and their birth families.
“If children are restricted to video calls, this can place additional strain on reunification with family members,” Ms Kaltner said.
For some families on low incomes, even video calling is too costly.
Passing on Culture
Maintaining a connection to culture is vital for Samar, whose parents migrated from Lebanon.
With the family at home during the pandemic in the fasting month of Ramadan, Samar and her children pray daily in a small shrine set up at their suburban home.
“[Ramadan] is all about giving, it's all about connecting with family, being more forgiving, giving to charity, trying to change yourself as a person.
“We are also teaching our kids Arabic so that when they grow up they can read book [in language].”
“I'm a very, very proud Muslim. I wear my scarf so proudly,” Samar explained.
“Our prophet [Muhammad] peace and blessings be upon him, was a foster child. He was an orphan, and he became a foster parent as well, and an adoptive parent. So we follow in his footsteps.”
“Some [foster] families don't know anything about the [Muslim] culture and the religion. So the [Muslim] children would completely miss out, which would be heartbreaking, because it's such a rich culture and the religion.”
Samar's children are lucky to find stable, long-term care.
For those who do not find stability, the outcomes can be terrible.
“One young man I met had moved [foster homes] 70 times,” said Renee Carter, CEO of Adopt Change.
“Studies that have shown that a high number of those children when they age out of the system at 18 will end up homeless, with other mental health problems.”
“Around 45,000 children across Australia are in and out of home care and that's often due to abuse and neglect,” Ms Carter explained.
“So when you meet [good] carers and you hear about how many little people they've helped, the warm meal, the clean sheets to sleep in at night and the ability to play as a child, those are some of the most healing things that those children can have access to.”
Foster carers aren't paid a wage, but do receive a fortnightly allowance to cover costs. Agencies hope that, as unemployment rises, more foster carers may come forward.
“Now is the time we really need to hear from volunteers. Make contact with Adopt Change or My Forever Family to find out how to become a carer,” Ms Carter explained.
“We need all kinds of carers from many different backgrounds, including Indigenous families.
Despite the heartache of saying goodbye when a foster child returns to its family, Suzan - who has cared for 38 children in almost two decades - says the rewards are worth it.
“Thanks God you gave me this job.
“You have to be patient and care about them and love them, show them the love,” she said.
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